Shuttle Mission's "Neurolab" To Study Nervous System

Science in Space to Feature Snails, Fish

Early on the morning of April 16, 1998, dozens of snails and fish will go where only a few men and women have gone before: into outer space. The snails and fish will travel aboard NASA's Space Shuttle Columbia, as part of a research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the development of gravity sensors in space by animals in the early stages of life.

The snails and fish will fly aboard Neurolab, a shuttle research mission dedicated to the study of the life sciences. Neurolab will focus on the most complex and least understood part of the human body -- the nervous system --which faces major challenges in space.

Gravity sensing systems have the same basic structure in all vertebrates, whether fish or humans. The gravity-detecting organ is lined with sensory cells that send signals to the brain when they are "triggered" by small, rock-like particles of calcium carbonate, referred to as statoliths in snails and otoliths in fish (and in humans). In humans, this system is a component of the inner ear.

"Gravity is always present on earth, so it's been hard to explore its role in development and in controlling movement," says Christopher Platt, program manager in NSF's division of integrative biology and neuroscience, which funded the aquatic experiments. "Neurolab allows unique tests that will shed light on how gravitational sensors work. These studies may tell us how exposure to lack of gravity may lead to abnormalities in the otolith organs, relevant to long-term space flight and to certain kinds of posture and balance problems in people on Earth."

Other benefits of the aquatic studies aboard Neurolab are development of an electrode that offers potential use as a connection to the nervous system in people with deafness caused by hair cell damage. The electrode might also someday be used as an interf

Contact: Cheryl Dybas
National Science Foundation

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